Retail giant Tesco needs more UK beef to meet soaring demand for its Finest and Organic ranges.

The supermarket, which accounts for about 14% of all UK beef sales through its 1252 stores, told industry representatives taking part in a fact-finding tour of Argentina and Brazil it was committed to a more interactive and open supply chain.

But Tesco added that it would continue to import South American beef into its Value range to meet peak demand.

Tesco agricultural manager Michelle Waterman said: “Of our fresh beef sold last year, 95% was born, reared and slaughtered in Britain.

Our fastest-growing sector is in British-sourced, premium lines.

We believe there is great opportunity for British farmers to benefit from this growth.”

She added that sales of Tesco Finest beef had grown by 32% in the last year.

Delegates from Tesco’s major beef processors, the NFU, the National Beef Association and the Livestock and Meat Commission visited dedicated farms and abattoirs in South America.

One of Tesco’s aims was to “dispel myths” about the quality of imported beef.

Ms Waterman said: “The trip was an opportunity to demonstrate to British farmers we insist on equivalent standards wherever we source meat.”

John Dracup, livestock director at St Merryn Foods, Tesco’s main supplier, went along.

“Tesco is clearly looking to re-engage with British producers and realises trust and transparency are integral to this.”

St Merryn’s Single-Suckled Producer Club, which supplies the retailer’s Finest range, was looking for more members, and an extra 500 organic cattle were needed to meet demand.

“South American beef has to be seen in context.

Imports are clearly focused on the value end of the retail range and seasonal promotions when domestic production cannot meet demand for steak meat,” said Mr Dracup.

Richard Phelps, managing director of Southern Counties Fresh Foods, said the firm was processing 10% more beef year-on-year and considering further investment to cope.

It was clear from the trip that Brazil and Argentina were targeting other EU markets than Britain, he added.

“Their export tariffs are changing and they have much more profitable markets elsewhere.”

NBA chief executive Robert Forster admitted the farms and meat plants Tesco had shown the group were impressive.

But UK retailers were unlikely to commit to large tonnages, he added, due to export, currency exchange rates and foot-and-mouth outbreaks.”

ian.ashbridge@rbi.co.uk